Get happy, indeed. Judys
greatest gift was her ability to capture that most elusive of emotions,
both on stage and off: joy. Its not the suffering, the struggle, the
drama, the melodrama, the tragedy, the farce or even the pathos we love
her for most. Its the happiness, the insouciance (that, on occasion,
literally -- I Dont Care prancing around a Gay 90s beer hall,
flinging her arms akimbo), the larkiness, the hope. All effortlessly displayed.
The joy bubbles up infectiously and giddily even (especially!) in her two
monumental anthems to public transportation. (Could she make the IRT as
magical as the Acheson, Topeka?) Her singing doesnt descend into masochism
or ascend into self-congratulatory noise-making. The climactic lyric of
her classic torch song, The Man that Got Away (by Ira Gershwin) has her
step back and refer to herself objectively in the third person. "There
is nothing sadder than a one man woman waiting for the man that got away
. . ." Its a fortuitous mating of text and interpreter as it
allows Judy to conclude this devastating story with her characteristic rueful
Although Judy would be merely eighty-one this year, her work, both on the screen and on the concert stage, should have aged poorly. Her singing style looks backwards to Al Jolson (with whom she shared several signature tunes) rather than forward to Sinatra or Clooney. She wasnt a jazz or a band singer and, although she could sing quietly, she didnt collaborate with the microphone. Yet Jolson seems freakish today (even in whiteface) and Judy is startling. She worked in Hollywood during the Golden Age but, God knows, that was no guarantee of immortality. Watch any compilation of old musical clips and do you really care about Alice Faye or Betty Grable or June Allyson or those butch tappers Powell and Miller? Or the swimmer? Those girls are perfect specimens of cultural history but not likely to move us with their artistry. Judys numbers pop off the screen and, if our contemporary musical movies had takes lasting more than a few frames, Those numbers would be very welcome and not only by us older guys.
Her other rare gift was for telling the truth. She was an actress and singer and -- as with all great actors -- you believe the experiences, the stories, the emotions she sings about are real and are being shared here and now as if for the first time. Thats not really happening of course, but some extraordinary creatures can play that trick on us and, magically, we discover they have gotten us happy.
ANDREW ZERMAN is a professional theatrical casting director. He never saw Judy perform live.